New takes on classic carols

The Nadeau Ensemble is set to (tentatively) bring their brand of Christmas cheer to the Evergreen Cultural Centre on Dec. 12. The Vancouver-based trio, which gets together once a year, consists of harpist Janelle Nadeau, violinist Serena Eades, and multi-instrumentalist Joaquin Ayala, takes a free-spirited approach to Christmas classics.

“Some of the Christmas music we play has very ancient origins, so it’s kind of interesting to work on some of these carols. We play them in a way that respects part of that heritage. It’s still a very modern way of playing it, but it’s historically informed,” says Nadeau.

A bold take on Christmas classics

The Nadeau Ensemble, 2020. | Photo courtesy of Matt Duboff

One might call it a Christmas treat for Western Canada: for the past few years, the Nadeau ensemble, consisting of a tight-knit ensemble of three to four members, has met to perform their modern takes on classic Christmas pieces, touring no further east than Manitoba.

While the name of the ensemble borrows the experienced harpist’s surname, Nadeau can only tentatively be referred to as the “bandleader,” as the group opts for a much more laid-back, egalitarian approach to collaboration.

“I didn’t want it to just be a direction from just one person,” says Nadeau. “I have my own personal things that I enjoy, but I also wanted to surround myself with people I respected that I knew could also bring something to the table, and they all do.”

For Violinist Eades, who has been with the group since last year, that means a break from the professional pressure to perform more classically, and being able to embrace her passion for a more Celtic flair.

“I shouldn’t say it’s a guilty pleasure, but it is kind of a guilty pleasure. I was one of those kids that would turn on Christmas music in October and my mom would tell me to turn it off until December. And all the pieces that we get to play, they’re the kinds of music that I listen to, like Celtic Christmas music that’s cozy and warm,” says Eades.

As for multi-instrumentalist Ayala, who has been a part of the ensemble since its inception in 2016, this creative freedom allows him to suggest bold new takes on classic carols, whether that’s invoking a near-medieval sound with instruments like the traditional Swedish nyckelharpa (a violin-like instrument with keys), or a more hypnotic tone through the use of synthesizers.

“There was this very old French Canadian piece, and I loved the melody of it, but more and more, I thought, ‘You know what this needs is a trance treatment.’ So we really started to slow the tempo down, put in these wild swirling, organ sounds, and all of the sudden, it was sort of something you’d hear in a club almost. So I love thinking out of the box. Very unorthodox,” says Ayala.

A Christmas concert in 2020

It’s difficult to say, however, what the Nadeau Ensemble performance of 2020 will look like this holiday season. Because of the recent pandemic and public safety measures set in place, many musicians have been unable to perform in front of an audience. And now with most inter-provincial travel and indoor gatherings banned until at least December 7, it’s uncertain whether the performance will take place in person, online, or even at all.

For Eades in particular, it would mark only her second concert since March of this year.

“Usually it would be about the fiftieth at least [by this time of year]. So I think it’s caused a lot of us, as players and listeners, to not take any opportunity for granted to play and see live music,” says Eades.

But the group remains hopeful for the show to go on. For Nadeau, Christmas and music have always been one and the same. This year, she and the others hope it can stay that way, provided of course it is safe to do so.

“I feel like Christmas and music are synonymous, and not just because of what I do for [a] living now, but it’s just the way I’ve always grown up,” says Nadeau. “I hear so many people craving something like that, craving music and craving art. They’re craving being a part of something. So I really hope that we can make it happen.”

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This event has been cancelled.